Take A Trip To This Underrated French Destination For A Lakeside Vacation

With its snowcapped mountains, picturesque valleys, and tranquil lakes, the French département of Haute-Savoie is certainly a dream destination for any lovers of nature. Located in the Alps of eastern France, and bordering both Switzerland and Italy, it not only combines spectacular scenery and all that fresh mountain air but also some rather renowned ski slopes. Putting winter sports to one side, however, if you are going to visit just one place here, then allow us to suggest Lake Annecy.

One of the largest lakes in France, this vast stretch of water has a shoreline length of some 22 miles (35 kilometers). Fed by no less than seven small rivers and mountain streams, not to mention an underground spring, it reaches almost 213 feet (65 meters) at its maximum depth. When you factor in the beautiful mountain backdrop, crystal-clear waters, and flotilla of colorful boats dotting the surface, it all adds up to an idyllic setting. Then there's the picture-perfect mountain town of Annecy itself.

Not surprisingly, this lakeside landscape has long been a draw for those seeking a peaceful escape in the Alps — not least the artist Cezanne who famously immortalized it in his painting "The Blue Lake". Today, the lake has the added accolade of being one of the cleanest in Europe. This is thanks to the strict environmental regulations that have been in place here since the late 1950s.

The many attractions of Lake Annecy

For those visiting Lake Annecy for the first time, there's no better way to start than a bicycle ride around the lake. Covering around 25 miles (40 kilometers), much of the route is along a protected cycle path, so there aren't many roads, and bike rental is available. While it may sound like a long way, it's a relatively easy ride that takes around three to four hours — or about a day to walk — without stopping. We challenge you not to stop, however, as there are so many memorable views along the way.

Aside from all that glorious alpine scenery, sprinkled along the shoreline of Lake Annecy are small beaches, charming villages, and fairy-tale-like chateaux — including one that was reputedly part of the inspiration behind Walt Disney's "Sleeping Beauty". Then there are the two nature reserves. Located on the eastern shore, Roc de Chère comprises 168 acres (68 hectares) of protected fauna and flora with impressive views. At the southern end, Bout-du-Lac offers 198 acres (80 hectares) with a dedicated educational trail. If you're lucky, you might even spot a European beaver.

The most famous attraction, however, is undoubtedly the old town of Annecy, the area's "capital", found at the northern end of the lake. With its pastel-colored buildings, narrow streets, and criss-cross canals, it is often described as the "Venice of the Alps". Overlooking the town, there is an ancient castle, Château d'Annecy, that is home to a museum about the region.

Discover an underwater wonderland

Back on the lake itself, there are water-based activities galore. From swimming, sailing, and stand-up paddle-boarding, to water skiing, wakeboarding, and wakesurfing, water babies really will be in their element here. It's hard to beat simply renting a boat, though, and heading off with a picnic in search of a serene spot. There are also guided cruises for those who wish to learn more about the lake.

For anyone in search of adventure, how about some snorkeling, scuba diving, or even freediving? Beneath the surface of the lake is a whole other world inhabited by aquatic plantlife, shellfish, and fish species such as arctic char, pike, and trout. There is even a shipwreck of an old paddle steamer that sank in 1971. Plus, there are a few surprises in store around the water. The lake is also home to the fascinating remains of ancient settlements, three of which are classified as UNESCO World Heritage sites as part of 111 prehistoric pile-dwellings across the Alps. 

Finally, from eco-friendly campsites and charming townhouses to five-star hotels, there's a wide array of places to stay there. And, for those who really want to push the boat out, you'll find no less than eight Michelin-star restaurants. Getting to the area is fairly straightforward, too, with direct trains from Paris that can take under four hours. For anyone craving pristine nature, pure air, and perfect waters, Lake Annecy is a place that's hard to top.